In 1939 Poland, a theater troupe is spending its days rehearsing a new play called Gestapo and performing Hamlet by night. Part of the troupe is husband and wife Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard). Maria has quite an admirer in Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), who repeatedly sends her flowers before asking to meet her. Maria agrees to meet him and tells him to come see her when Joseph begins the “To be or not to be” speech. The two are attracted to each other and continue to meet up. However, just as Maria was trying to convince him that she can’t run off and live on a farm with him, they get word that Germany has invaded Poland. Sobinski has to go fight with the Air Force while the actors run for cover. While Sobinski is in England, he and some fellow pilots are cavorting with Professor Siletsky, whom they believe is on their side. When Siletsky mentions he will be going back to Poland soon, the pilots gladly hand over addresses of their loved ones so he can deliver messages for them. Sobinski asks Siletsky to give a message to Maria, but Sobinski quickly realized Siletsky wasn’t who he says he is when he says he doesn’t know who Maria Tura is. Maria was so famous in Poland that there was no way someone from Poland could possibly not know who she is.
Realizing they had just given the Nazis the names and addresses of important people in the Polish resistance, Sobinski is sent to Warsaw to warn people about Siletsky. He gives Maria a message to pass on to the Polish resistance, and just as she returns from delivering the message, she is stopped by some Nazis. They bring her to Siletsky, who tries to convince her to become a Nazi spy. When she finally does get home, she finds her husband very confused about what is going on and why Sobinski is in their apartment. But ultimately, the three of them decide the best thing to do is to kill Siletsky. So Maria goes back to see Siletsky and pretends to be on their side, while Joseph gets the other actors to put on their costumes from Gestapo. One of the actors in costume goes to see Siletsky and tells him that he is wanted at Gestapo headquarters. Little does he know that Gestapo headquarters are really the theater that has been decorated with props from the play.
Eventually, Siletsky realizes Joseph is an actor and pulls a gun on him. Joseph tries to escape, Siletsky chases after him, and Siletsky is shot and killed on the stage of the theater. Joseph then disguises himself as Siletsky so he can get into his hotel room and destroy the incriminating information. But at the hotel, his disguise really does fool a Nazi officer, who brings him to meet some real Nazi officials. The next day, Siletsky’s body is found and, not knowing that the Nazis know that Siletsky is dead, he poses as Siletsky again to arrange another meeting. The Nazis now know something is going on, and although Joseph manages to get out of the situation, they know it’s only a matter of time before the Nazis figure them out. So they decide to make one last bold attempt to get out of the country — on Hitler’s own plane.
When you talk about political satire in films, everyone always talks about Dr. Strangelove, Duck Soup, and The Great Dictator. It feels like To Be or Not to Be kind of gets left out. To Be or Not to Be is every bit as scathing as The Great Dictator, but it’s more subtle. Both movies brilliantly portray Hitler and the Nazi party as bumbling idiots, but Chaplin did it through far more physical, slapstick comedy. To Be or Not to Be’s approach was less physical and more screwball, but it still makes a statement.
There is so much for me to love about this movie. It’s packed full of razor-sharp wit and all the performances are simply brilliant. Jack Benny was hilarious, as was Lombard. Unfortunately, this was Carole Lombard’s final film; it was released about two months after she died in a plane crash. However, her career couldn’t have ended with a better film. It was really interesting for me to see Robert Stack in this movie. Like I said in my “What’s on TCM: August 2010” entry, I haven’t seen very many of his movies. I mostly know him from his later stuff like Airplane! and from watching countless reruns of Unsolved Mysteries. This is the earliest thing I’ve seen him in and I almost didn’t recognize him because he didn’t yet have that very distinct voice he had by the time he did Unsolved Mysteries. And then there’s Ernst Lubitsch. Ernst Lubitsch was such a brilliant director and To Be or Not to Be definitely has that unmistakable Lubitsch touch. But the fact that Lubitsch, who was Jewish and was born in Germany, was at the helm for such a biting attack on the Nazi party definitely makes the punch even more powerful.
To Be or Not to Be is one of those movies that is now considered a classic, but when it was first released, it was not a big hit. It had the misfortune of being released at a really difficult time. Carole Lombard’s death was still fresh in people’s minds and the U.S. had become involved in World War II, so this was a movie most people just weren’t ready to laugh at. But thankfully, time has passed and people have given To Be or Not to Be another chance and it now gets the recognition it deserves.